Drawing The Line: Paying the price for fame and fortune

Dave Naylor
7/5/2011 11:59:05 AM
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All this week on Sportscentre and we present Drawing The Line, a five-part series examing the issues around violence in sports. Over the past few months we've sat down with current and retired players, league and team executives, doctors, academics and those who manage grass roots sports in this country. We'll shed light on the issues around one of the hottest topics in sports, asking the questions that determine where we draw the line on sports violence, how that line should be established and why this issue continues to be so hotly debated.

I am sitting in the Fort Lauderdale home of Lional Dalton, the former defensive tackle of the Super Bowl winning Baltimore Ravens, who is showing me the trouble he has looking down or turning his head side-to-side.

He shows me the pills he takes each day, the things he does to try to relax or numb the pain, and when I ask him if he thinks he could ever work a 9-to-5 job someday, he just shakes his head and chuckles.

Dalton is 35 years old. He was an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan University, who beat the odds and lasted 10 NFL seasons. He lined up for Baltimore in front of Ray Lewis on one of the best defences of the Super Bowl era, before moving on to play with the Broncos, Redskins, Chiefs and Texans. 

In his family room hangs his Baltimore jersey framed on the wall along with a picture of that championship team from January of 2001. Dalton is a big, wide man who lives in a beautiful home thanks to his willingness to stick his head into the middle of the NFL trenches, disregarding his health and sacrificing his body.

Like so many players, he knew all those years would catch up with him, but always found a way to put it out of his mind.

"When you're younger, you're just a wild man," said Dalton. "You're playing, you're taking all these drugs and you don't think about it. When you get older you start to see your hands shaking involuntarily or you can't get up (out of) bed … You start realizing `what's life after football?' But then you think about the money, you just say `forget it', I'll fix myself up when I'm done or I'll have enough money that I won't have to worry. That's not the reality of it, but you know the money kind of helps you drown out all the other issues."

Dalton believes he had at least four concussions during his career, though he was diagnosed with just one. And even then, he never missed a practice.

In his final game, in 2006, while playing for the Houston Texans, he broke his neck.

His body may have been screaming for him to stop playing long before his career ended, but the financial rewards of playing in the NFL made him keep going.

"I have memory loss sometimes," said Dalton, who was friends with recently deceased former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson. "It's scary because it's a slow disease and you know you see it coming. But I just pray it doesn't happen to me … I know I feel this way now, I can imagine what I'm like when I'm 50 or 60."

And yet when I ask Dalton if he has any regrets related to his football career, there are none.

Sure, he wonders if he should have retired a few seasons earlier, before the wear and tear on his body really set in.

But would he trade his 10 years in the NFL for anything in the world? No chance.

It's a perspective that's not unique among athletes who participate in full contact sports where violent blows or collisions are simply a workplace reality.

They enter their sports understanding there will be risks accompanied by reward, taking their chances and assuming that the consequences of their chosen professions won't be too severe.

Which isn't to suggest there aren't those who believe some sports are in need of reform, such as former hockey star Paul Kariya whose recent retirement announcement was accompanied by sharp criticism about the way the NHL tolerates hits to the head.

But even some of those who've laid responsibility at the feet of the NHL for the concussion epidemic admit to their own mentalities being part of the problem.

"I'm asked often if I knew then what I know now, would I have changed my course," said former NHLer Keith Primeau, whose career was ended by repeated concussions which he sometimes tied to play through. "I can't honestly say that I would and that's sad because that's just the way we were brought up."

No NHL player wants to be concussed. But every player who steps into the NHL these days is certainly aware of that possibility and yet the sport of hockey has no shortage of those pining to play the game professionally.

Same goes for football or rugby or lacrosse or the stream of athletes coming from all walks of life to enter the octagon in mixed martial arts.

"People don't go into these things thinking they're going to get hurt," said Dr. David Levy, who serves as team doctor for the National Lacrosse League's Toronto Rock as well as the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats. "They're going into this thinking I'm going to have a great life doing this and I'm going to do it as long as I'm able and my body will let me. And I think people don't think past that."

And even if they do consider the risk, few would consider it too great for the reward.

Dallas Stars forward Krys Barch said it best when asked whether NHL players would consider giving up their livelihoods if they knew they would pay a price in their golden years.

"We're lucky to be doing what we're doing," Barch said, "even with the risk of later on in life … maybe not living as comfortably from 60 to 70. I know even from our teammates, that 99.9 per cent of guys in the NHL would sign that's an easy tradeoff."

And perhaps that's part of why the public's tolerance for violence in sports is so high.

Professional athletes are not conscripted into their professions. Some of them come from backgrounds where a career in sports is one of a few options. But they are volunteers nonetheless.

And while they don't make the rules, they are by and large willing to live by them, and whatever consequences they may bring.

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